Rambo Comes to Paterson

Against the Current, No. 21, July/August 1989

Charlie Post and Kit Adam Wainer

PRINCIPAL JOE CLARK of Eastside High School dominates the silver screen in “Lean on Me.” His mission is to save benighted poor and minority students from the very real plague of drugs; he will not yield lo petty considerations like the rights of students, teachers or parents.

The enemies are clear: liberal administrators, venal parent activists and lazy, uncaring teachers. Armed with a bull horn and a baseball bat, Joe Clark single­ handedly succeeds in transforming the Paterson, New Jersey, high school from a typical inner city school to a model of order and learning. Rambo resolves the crisis of urban education.

To dispel any false impressions that Joe Clark is the instrument of a white power structure primarily interested in controlling Black and Latino students, the film opens twenty years earlier with Clark, sporting dashiki and full Afro, confronting several white school administrators over their indifference to the needs of minority students.

Rather than submit to the bureaucrats’ strictures, Clark accepts exile to a small elementary school Clark is an uncompromising defender of the disempowered and outcast!

What is the program of this new champion of the powerless? To restore the African-American father to his appropriate position of authority. The epidemic of female-headed households has turned the students of Eastside High School into either unmotivated adolescents or, worse, sociopaths.

Joe Clark, as the self-appointed surrogate father to several thousand urban youth, restores order to their chaotic lives. Clark begins his tenure at Eastside with a massive purge of 300 undesirable students for the hideous crime of remaining in high school past the age of eighteen.

Having surgically removed this cancer, Clark instills self-worth and pride in the students by demanding their unquestioning obedience. Nothing is more emotionally rewarding to adolescents than paternal terror.

Clark knows that fatherly duties are not restricted to punishment nor do they end at three o’clock. In one of the more heart-rending episodes, he visits the single mother of a distressed student. Clark quickly imposes male order on the situation. He gets the mother to “say no” to drugs and even finds her a job.

Joe Clark extends his paternal magic to the teaching staff of Eastside High School Before his arrival, the teachers “ran the school.” The absence of proper authority led to a general disregard for the education and safety of the vast majority of the students.

Clark restores pride in Eastside by publicly humiliating teachers at every possible opportunity. The teachers, too, have to submit to the dictates of all – knowing father Joe. A music teacher who has the audacity to prepare her racially integrated chorus for a performance of Mozart at New York City’s Lincoln Center rather than a recital of the school song is summarily fired.

The Solution or the Problem?

Only two obstacles remain: irrational parent activists and corrupt politicians. Even “crazy Joe” cannot whip these forces into submission, for they control the purse strings. He can circumvent them only by demonstrating the effectiveness of his program of educational reform.

Constantly harassed by parents on the school board for expelling students and by the mayor and police chief for chaining exit doors, Clark is undeterred from his goal of improving student scores on New Jersey’s basic skills tests.

In the end, virtue and patriarchal authority triumph. Sixty-eight percent of the students passed the English Basic Skills test and more than 90 percent passed the Math.

Despite the film’s portrayal of Clark as a new Black Messiah intent upon lifting the community up by its bootstraps, “Lean on Me” feeds the racist mythology about the crisis of urban education.

Joe Clark’s willingness to discipline minority youth and their parents won him tremendous popularity and a thank you from Ronald Reagan. The powers-that-be agree with Clark that the problem in the schools is undisciplined students from fatherless families. Their strategy is to impose a draconian order on the students, their parents and the teachers. The lesson is clear: teacher-student-parent democracy is the enemy.

Unfortunately, it is this disempowerment of teachers, students and parents that is the root of the crisis. Excluded from any real control over curriculum, pedagogy and school governance, students and teachers become demoralized. They quickly blame each other for the deterioration of public education.

Rather than fund the inner-city schools, the federal and state governments prioritize investment in security and discipline. The typical urban school is supplied with guards, police and metal detectors, rather than small classes and an empowering environment.

It should come as no surprise that “educational excellence” in today’s schools is measured by students’ ability to regurgitate definitions and formulas on standardized tests. Critical thinking, impossible in schools run by despots like Joe Clark, is not part of the evaluation of our schools’ effectiveness.

The solution to the problems of the urban public schools is not a strong father willing to discipline his errant students and teachers. A movement of parents, teachers and students to take, rather than yield, power over the schools is what we desperately need.

July-August 1989, ATC 21

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